Full In-person Learning Eyed for Bellingham Schools in SeptemberMay 27, 2021 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano
by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer
Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano (left) has a message for all parents of children who attend public schools in Bellingham: all indications currently point to full, in-person learning in September.
“As of now [Bulletin deadline], the State Department of Education is calling for no more remote or hybrid learning,” Marano said. “I’m ecstatic and pleased, and so is our staff. It’s rewarding to know that our future will reflect a more normal educational setting, which our students desperately need after dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year.”
Masks and social distancing could even be shelved, but the school chief says that so much depends on how the pandemic data are trending. “It’s my hope that there’ll be no need for masks and social distancing, but the vaccines are the key element in making a difference,” he emphasized. “As we get closer to September 1 (opening day in Bellingham), the data will have to be favorable, and we’ll need to know if a majority of children are vaccinated. Hand sanitizing likely will remain in place at all five schools.”
Marano noted that 80 percent of the entire school staff have been vaccinated. Students, ages 12 and up, were scheduled to get the vaccine on May 19 at both Bellingham High and the Memorial School. Vaccinations were optional.
“I’m extremely pleased that for the entire year there has been no in-school transmission of the virus,” Marano said. “That’s a credit to our staff, which kept all the mitigating factors in place—like masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and vigorous cleaning of buildings.”
Athletics, extra-curricular activities and busing should all return to more traditional and normal conditions. “I anticipate that sports will be more normal, and mask-wearing, social distancing and hand sanitizing will be either limited or perhaps unnecessary,” Marano said. “The same should hold for extra-curricular activities with schedules and routines returning to normal.”
Marano said that restrictions on busing likely will be removed and that conditions on buses will be back to normal in September as long as the data keep trending in the right direction.
Marano is quick to praise the nurses at all five schools, and he also cited the custodial staff for its efforts. “Our school nurses have been extraordinary,” he said. “The leadership of our lead nurse (Maureen Loftus) has been excellent. The offices at all the schools have been a beehive of activity. All of our nurses have handled the increase in traffic with expert approach and dignity. The custodial staff also has done an outstanding job keeping up with the cleaning protocols and the sanitizing of our buildings.”
High school graduation is just a few days away, scheduled for June 4 at 6 pm at the high school athletic field. “The Department of Education protocols are that students wear masks and sit three feet apart,” Marano said. “Family members attending (maximum of six) must wear masks and can sit in a group.”
Reflecting on the school year that will conclude this month, Marano offered his opinion on school closings, busing and quarantines.
“The high school closed for one week, and the Memorial School went fully remote for several days,” he noted. “We had an increase in students testing positive, so we moved cautiously to close the high school for a week. Because of a shortage of staff, deemed in close contact with individuals testing positive, we closed the Memorial School and went fully remote for a few days.”
Bus drivers drew praise for their efforts and their monitoring of students. “Social distancing and masks were required,” Marano said. All buses were sanitized between runs, and our drivers did a remarkable job.”
Quarantines occurred all year long at all levels, and they’ve continued into late spring. “Students who had to quarantine either tested positive for the virus or were in close contact with an individual who tested positive,” Marano said.
All students returned to in-person learning in April, and that’s what Marano is aiming for in September. “That’s the ultimate hope,” he said. “I can say that with all students back in the building there’s already a feeling of normalcy as the school year is set to conclude. A big part of my job in the fall will be to mitigate the learning gaps that were created by the pandemic. The key is to monitor and focus on the vision for our district.”
Marano’s office, which in the past has dealt with phone calls offering suggestions or stating complaints, is much quieter now. “There’s been a decrease in calls,” he said. “What we get now are questions that ask for clarity. It’s difficult sometimes to be specific because you have the state and federal government and the Department of Education chiming in with different views. What we want is simply to know what procedures and protocols are best for the students.”
What has helped during the pandemic is the leadership displayed by the district’s administrators. Marano had led on the issue by being flexible and by adapting, staying calm and assuming responsibility. “It’s imperative to be flexible and to change quickly,” he said. “We went from hybrid learning to in-person education in a very brief time. Staying calm is the key to responsible leadership, and taking responsibility is a must. I don’t always have the answers, but I’ll be responsible for what decisions I make.”
COVID-19 has taught many people many things. The 48-year-old Superintendent says the coronavirus outbreak has emphasized “the importance of adapting and that true leaders for the district must take into account all aspects of what students need—like academics, social and emotional learning and athletics.”
The pandemic has indeed prepared school administrators for future issues and future problems; and, although he won’t admit it, Marano probably hasn’t experienced a full night’s sleep since March 2020.
When September rolls around, when more and more individuals have been vaccinated, and if the pandemic data continue to trend downward, Marano will be smiling.
One situation that did create a smile from him during the height of the pandemic was the way parents and students handled all the changes and adhered to all the protocols. “Our students and parents have been exceptional throughout the school year,” he said. “They rolled with the punches; and, although they had legitimate concerns and questions, they’ve been patient, understanding and gracious in how we approached their children’s safety.”